A week after Alliance Center shooting, getting back to work

Michael Piche went to Denver’s Alliance Center Thursday to finish fixing a printer. He’d meant to finish the job last Tuesday, but circumstances didn’t quite allow it.

He had been midway through working with a client on the 2nd floor when he heard screams coming from the other side of the building. Everyone on the floor emerged from their offices to find out what was going on. When Piche came out, he heard someone yell, “He’s got a gun!”

Piche headed to the closest stairway, but the situation was unclear — and so was the safest route. He didn’t know how many gunmen there were, or where they were coming from, so he decided against using the stairs. Instead, he followed some people who seemed to know where they were going. Piche had never set foot in the building before.

He ended up in an 8’ by 10’ conference room with his office repair client, Michael Leccese of the Urban Land Institute, and three women he’d never met. When he decided to step out and check on things, he saw a man calmly holding a revolver.

“Everything about him seemed very calm, very deliberate,” Piche said. “I’ve never seen anyone do something that violent and be that calm.”

Piche immediately retreated back into the conference room, where he and Leccese determined that, in the event that the shooter was killing at random, they needed an attack plan. They grabbed office chairs and a packing tape dispenser to use as weapons they could use to overwhelm the shooter should it become necessary.

As misfortune would have it, none of the five people in the conference room had a cell phone on them. At one point, one of the women tried to use a landline that was in the room, but it made too much noise; they didn’t want to draw attention to themselves.

Then Piche heard four shots. Having seen that the shooter’s weapon was a revolver, he calculated that he had one or two shots left, and decided that he and Leccese could try and neutralize him after a fifth shot.

After a minute or two, he heard that shot.

Piche inferred that the shooter had taken his own life, based on the silence between the fourth and fifth shots. He waited a bit, then came out of the conference room to confirm. He saw the shooter’s dead body, and returned to tell the others they could leave. On their way down the stairs, they were met by a SWAT team, who escorted them out of the building at gunpoint with their hands raised.

If you’re wondering how Piche kept such a cool head, you aren’t alone.

Piche spent four years as an infantry officer in the Marine Corps, and was deployed several times to Iraq.

“Most of [infantry training] is dealing with fear,” he said. “The hardest part is orienting yourself and observing the situation, and then you can make decisions and start reacting.”

Piche never thought he would have to apply his combat training to his work in office products. “That’s why I got out…I just wanted to get away from it totally,” he said. “So I did think that working in the office equipment world would never lead to that.”

On the 5th floor of the Alliance Center, employees of Conservation Colorado heard the initial screams and sounded the alarm in the office. Some people’s first instinct was to get out of the building. But others noticed more than ten police cars converging on the Alliance Center and advised against it.

With mounting trepidation, Conservation Colorado staff watched the police put on SWAT gear and enter the building. “People were calling family members to say ‘I love you’,” said Hannah Fuhlendorf. “We just thought it was your run-of-the-mill mass shooting – we didn’t know it was targeted.”

Some staffers tuned into the police scanner, which Fuhlendorf said was comforting because the officers sounded calm.

A week after the June 28th shooting that left Colorado Recycling Association executive director Cara Russell dead at the hands of her estranged husband, Mickey Russell, tenants notice a new sense of unity.

“People are much friendlier now — people I’ve seen a lot but never actually met have introduced themselves to me,” Fuhlendorf said.

They’re all aware it’ll take far more than a week to recover from what they saw and heard that Tuesday afternoon.

Fuhlendorf paraphrased the words of her boss, Conservation Colorado’s Executive Director Pete Maysmith: “He basically said, ‘It’s OK to not be OK.’”

Photo credit: Allen Tian